by Jared Cappel
The school was much as Xavier remembered it, only smaller: the drinking fountain hardly reached his hip, the lockers were no wider than his thigh, the doorframes barely cleared his forehead.
A blinking light guided a string of students up a flight of stairs. Flashing arrows led Xavier past the library and around the gym, stopping at a door marked principal.
He’d been to the office too many times. As a child, if a classmate shot a spitball, he’d throw a match. If a teacher found a flaw in his homework, he’d find a flaw in her face. It was a game to him, balancing the bluster of youth with the risk of expulsion.
Somehow, he’d graduated, and though he’d vowed never to return, he’d once again been summoned to the principal’s office. This time, however, it was to discuss his daughter, Yvonne, a curly haired second grader with the sunken eyes of a grown woman.
Xavier knocked on the principal’s door, and it swung open. The office hadn’t changed. The same motivational posters hung on the wall and a familiar brass birdcage sat on the windowsill, with a hyacinth macaw inside preening its feathers. Xavier stuck in a finger and stroked the bird’s bright blue plumage. “Zippy, is that really you?”
The macaw squawked. “Principal Doreen is oh so mean.”
Xavier burst out laughing. “You remember! I guess some things never change.” He plopped into an empty seat on the nearside of the desk, overtaken by a sense of déjà vu. He could picture Principal Doreen staring down at him, screaming that he’d never amount to anything.
Only she’d been wrong. He’d found his niche as the manager of the local comedy club. He’d married, bought a house, raised a beautiful child. Yvonne was everything he wasn’t—she thought before speaking, rationing her words as if they were a finite commodity.
A filtered voice shouted from above. “Young man, sit up straight!”
Xavier straightened in his chair as if on instinct. He recognized the voice instantly. Principal Doreen. He scanned the office for the booming woman, but she wasn’t there. She couldn’t be. It was impossible.
A large screen slowly unfurled from the ceiling, revealing the scowling face that had haunted his youth. Each crevice in her wrinkled skin was precisely as he remembered it. She had a ruler in her hand and a hardness to her eyes. His entire body shook as if he were eight all over again.
His voice trembled. “But you’re dead. I went to your funeral.” A smile crept onto his face. “I danced on your grave.”
Zippy squawked. “Danced on your grave.”
Principal Doreen slapped her ruler. “Shame on you. I see you haven’t changed one bit.”
Principal Doreen leant so far forward that Xavier feared she would burst through the screen and smack the grin off his face. Her raspy voice rang out. “The children need consistency. They were used to Principal Doreen, so when she passed, I was programmed to look and speak exactly like her.”
“If you’re not really her, then how do you remember me?”
“I remember all of our students.” Principal Doreen cast a beam from her eyes, generating the image of a digital filing cabinet. “Every infraction, no matter how minor, I remember.”
The top drawer of the cabinet swung open. A particularly thick file floated above the batch, with Xavier’s name on top. He skimmed through his past indiscretions—the cherry bomb in the toilet, the worms in the spaghetti. He sighed. “People are more than their mistakes.”
The lower drawer flew open. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Xavier found a similarly large folder, only this time it was his daughter’s. He swiped through the shining report cards and comments of praise. “Looks like she’s doing great. So why am I here?”
“Young man, the principal’s office is more than lectures and discipline.”
“Your daughter has a gift, one that must be nurtured. We recommend immediate boarding in our gifted ward, where our specially tailored computer programs will provide her with every opportunity.”
Xavier studied the scowl that still haunted his sleepless nights. “She’s doing fine at home.”
“Fine? Is that what you consider acceptable?”
“She’s happy, thriving.”
“Is she?” Principal Doreen played a feed of Yvonne’s classroom. While the other children struggled through their math problems, Yvonne stared out the window, her work long since finished. A bright light flashed in Yvonne’s eyes until she looked down to the paper. She rechecked her calculations and tried to look busy.
Xavier’s face grew red. “Why would you do that?”
“The lights instill discipline and focus. If she lives here, we can adjust her behaviour all hours of the day. This is what she requires to reach her full potential. Unlike you, she can amount to something.”
“What she needs is people who believe in her.” He jumped to his feet, his temples pounding with rage. “I had no choice but to attend school here, but my daughter won’t stay!”
Xavier stormed towards the projector and ripped the metal handle from the wall. The furling screen swallowed Principal Doreen’s face and crashed to the floor.
Principal Doreen shouted. “You can’t silence me! The projector is only for your sake. I’m still here!”
“And here you shall stay.” Xavier lifted the birdcage and unclasped the brass door. “Come on Zippy, we don’t need her.”
Zippy flapped his wings and flew to the furled screen. As Principal Doreen wailed, Zippy pecked at the matte finish, tearing off bits of plastic with his beak.
Xavier whistled. “Forget about her, Zippy. We’re free now.”
Xavier stepped out of the office, ignoring Principal Doreen’s last-ditch threats. Zippy swooped into the hallway and settled on Xavier’s shoulder.
Flashing arrows pointed towards the exit, but Xavier sidestepped them and burst into Yvonne’s classroom. The students looked up in awe.
Yvonne rose from her seat, ignoring the blinding flashing lights. “Daddy, that’s Principal Doreen’s bird!”
Xavier looked to the bird. “Tell her, Zip.”
Zippy puffed his feathers. “Principal Doreen is oh so mean.”
Jared Cappel's work has appeared in After Dinner Conversation, Door Is A Jar, Literally Stories, Nonbinary Review and Reflex Press, among others. A lover of wordplay, he's ranked as one of the top Scrabble players in North America. Follow the latest at www.jaredcappel.com.
Fiction by Jared Cappel:
"Caged Potential" October 2021